I believe that every technological field needs its tinkerers. Those are the people who get so passionately wrapped up with the potential applications of a discovery – even if it is only new to themselves – that they want to know everything they can about how to use it. They are the kind of people who built crystal radio sets and tried to contact people in other states or around the globe. They are the kind of people who tested shapes in their bicycle shop using wind tunnels that they designed themselves and then had the courage to apply their findings to actual machines on a desolate beach near Kitty Hawk. They are the kind of people who push the limits of internal combustion engines every week on the NASCAR circuit.
Unfortunately, in atomic fission, the tinkerers have been severely constrained by excessive fear. They have also been constrained by the conventional wisdom that tells atomic professionals that the only good nuclear plant is one that produces enough power to supply a city with a million inhabitants.
The people that otherwise would have been tinkerers and experimenters have been relegated to building elaborate computer models to test their theories about how to improve power plant performance in one technical vector or another.
There is one time and place in the US where this general rule did not really apply. At the National Reactor Testing Station near Idaho Falls, a small number of people were provided with a large amount of open space, general freedom from excessive oversight, and asked to test some performance theories using actual hardware. Their work had its dangers – tinkerers often put themselves at risk as they push the envelope of the known. Those dangers, however, were always limited to the people involved in the experimentation and they took necessary precautions to ensure that they did not harm anyone else.
Ray Haroldsen was one of those tinkerers. He began working as an electrical engineer at NRTS fresh out of college. He was a self proclaimed “farm boy” who was the only native of the NRTS local area on his small team that supported the Experimental Breeder Reactor I (EBR I) and the BORAX (Boiling Reactor Experiment) series of experimental reactors.
I will not spoil the stories – you need to go and hear them for yourself at The Atomic Show #068 – Ray Haroldsen, Atomic Tinkerer who has tested the limits.
As you listen, remember, this is a first hand account from one of the earliest experimenters in the world who operated atomic fission power plants. We recorded our conversation yesterday, September 16, 2007 at 8:00 AM my time, but 6:00 am Mr. Haroldsen’s time.
Think hard about the implications of that statement.
PS – Thank you, Hans, for introducing me to Ray. This will not be the last interview that I conduct with him. What a treasure!